State inspectors are familiar with the challenges that school bus fleet mechanics face in their jobs: aging vehicles, drivers skipping pre-trips or post-trips, and tight school budgets, just to name a few. However, one mechanic gave new inspectors a more complete picture of what they deal with on a daily basis.
Douglas Francis, the associate transportation director and head mechanic of Gaylord (Mich.) Community Schools, sat in on interviews for several new school bus inspectors for the Michigan State Police Motor Carrier Division, and decided to write an “open letter” to familiarize them with what a school bus operation looks like. Francis, who is also a chairperson for the Michigan Association for Pupil Transportation (MAPT) Pupil Transportation Fleet Committee, thought it might further strengthen pupil transportation's relationship with state police as they work together to keep school buses safe.
In the letter, Francis outlines the myriad responsibilities and ever-fluctuating and unpredictable nature of a school bus mechanic’s job, and notes that being flexible is a daily necessity. He also expresses appreciation for the police and the state’s safety inspections, and asks inspectors to “please take time to get to know us and understand the demands of our day.”
Phillip Haldaman, a school administrator for the Charlevoix-Emmet (Mich.) Intermediate School District and the president-elect of MAPT, brought the letter to School Bus Fleet’s attention. “It was a hit with the inspectors,” he told SBF in an email message.
Francis' letter is published in full below.
"January 31, 2017
To Whom It May Concern,
The day may start as early as 4:00 am. The mechanics start arriving at 5:30 a.m. As drivers trickle in, they prepare their bus for the a.m. routes. We all wonder how our day will play out. The roads may be snow-covered and slippery. It may be extremely cold or extremely hot. We have come to the conclusion that kids and parents are a barometer for the weather conditions. Then, things happen.
Our office phone starts to ring. Drivers call in sick as the flu is going around again. We scramble to fill driver positions because our driver sub pool is very small or non-existent. Some of our buses will not start. We scramble to get our equipment on the road and be safe. Parents call the office with demands we cannot meet. We deal with unresolved issues with students and drivers from last night’s route. An administrator may call our department with concerns and/or needs we, by law, cannot meet. Sometimes they are not understanding of our role.
We insist our drivers do pre-trip as well as post-trip safety inspections. The mechanics perform safety inspections and find evidence of some drivers not fulfilling their job duties. Some of our school buses are old and tired. Upper management gives us flak for requesting new ones. Some staff is undertrained and/or does not have the skill set required for today’s transportation environment. School financing is always an issue. Our labor force has dramatically changed over the past 10 years.
Our day suddenly changes. One of our buses has been involved in an accident and students are injured. Two high school students get into a fight on a bus, and a weapon is involved. Seat vandalism is discovered. A driver backs into a mailbox. One of our buses is stuck in the snow and is loaded with passengers. An engine fails. It is discovered a bus has a wheel seal leaking. The day may not end until 6:00 p.m.
Even with the fast pace of our world, somehow we manage to bring students safely to and from school and special events. We are the staff dealing with upper management, parents and students. Our fleet has become more complicated with emissions control devices. Why won’t they stay running? The dealerships do their best to help us with issues. We adapt and change as our equipment changes. We always strive to have a safe fleet.
Sometime throughout the year, the Michigan State Police come to our facility to perform school bus safety inspections. Some of us have a long history of going through the process of having school buses inspected and others may experience this for the first time. What will you find? What have we missed? We realize you are as concerned about safety as we are. Michigan is very fortunate to have school bus safety inspections.
Please understand that we may feel uncomfortable when you arrive at our transportation department. We may be nervous and sometimes not very understanding of your role in Michigan’s school bus transportation industry. As we continue to work together, please take time to get to know us and understand the demands of our day. Accept a homemade cookie or a burger for lunch. But most of all, please continue to do what you do as we all work towards the goal of maintaining safe school buses in Michigan."